I am in Pisa, sitting in the lobby of the Royal Victoria Hotel on the Arno. This hotel is old. Shelley and Mary stayed here. So did Dickens and Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt and Van Buren. So did Zadie Smith last summer. There are marble floors and plants spilling over brass pots. An orchid on the entrance table. Busts of Roman gods, tables with claw feet and marble tops. The river is muddy, wide, and brown. The current’s strong. Sticks and rubbish and floating birds rush past. Shelley liked to go boating here, even in December. He almost died on the Arno. Now I know why. The wind is strong; the water is rough and looks deep; Shelley could not swim and he was in a small sailboat with a short mast he took down when they went under the bridges. Byron watched Shelley struggle with the current from his palazzo windows and said, “Only Shelley would be out in weather like this.” — or something to that effect. I have walked into the palazzo where Byron lived. Huge and old and cavernous and stone. I have walked in the gardens where Shelley and Mary walked. I have gone in the churches she visited. Circled where their house probably was. Yesterday afternoon I had a long talk with an Italian historian who told me some new stories about the Shelleys. He thinks that Shelley’s brain is buried down the street. Today, I got up early and walked and ran around the city for hours, then hired a car and went to the Bagni di Pisa (San Giuliano) and then Lucca. It is pouring rain and I am still damp. But this is exactly the time of year that Mary was here and she loved to walk, so she was probably damp all the time, too. When I was in Lucca I went into a church where an 18th century oil painting of the Madonna and child hung under a huge stone eagle and suddenly it struck me how difficult it must have been for Mary, after her children had died, to see all of these babies — pink and white chubby reminders of what she had lost. She and the Madonna have the same name, too. I wonder if she took comfort in knowing that the Madonna lost her child, too. I had made this connection between Mary and the mother of Jesus before, but suddenly I know it very deeply, particularly as I am traveling without my son for the first time since he was born. I miss him. Before I left, my sister said, remember your child is still alive and he is even annoying sometimes. But without him here and in a kind of imaginative trance, working as I am to imagine Mary’s life, to be Mary, it is awful the sudden aches that nothing can fix. Those missing children. She must have felt this all the time. She couldn’t talk about it to anyone; no one liked her to be sad or depressed. Shelley complained to Mary’s stepsister, Claire, and fell in love with other women.
In a few minutes I will be catching a train to Florence.